Archive for the 'General update' Category

This is a very cute GMail how-to video

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

More here on what went into creating it. I love the care with details like the cursor and the stars.

Explaining Google’s popularity

Monday, February 25th, 2008

I should be prepping for class, but I want to add an alternative perspective to a question raised about Google’s popularity. The Freakonomics blog features an interesting Q&A with Hal Varian today, I recommend heading over to check out how Google’s chief economist answers some questions submitted by readers last week.

The Official Google Blog takes one of the questions and posts an expanded response to it. The question:

How can we explain the fairly entrenched position of Google, even though the differences in search algorithms are now only recognizable at the margins?

Varian addresses three possible explanations: supply-side economies of scale, lock-in, and network effects. He dismisses all of these (see the post for details) and then goes on to say that it’s about Google’s superior quality in search that makes it as popular as it is.

I don’t buy it, especially the dismissal of the lock-in factor. While I realize that it seems as though another search engine is just a simple click away (and sure, technically it is), I have observed too many Internet users in my research to know that in reality it is not that simple at all. First, there is the lock-in that comes from having Google as the default search engine in some browsers (e.g., Firefox). Of course, related issues apply to other search engines as well. Why does Yahoo! still enjoy a sizeable market share in search at least in the U.S. one might ask? It is probably related to the fact that more people seem to have a personalized version of Yahoo! as their start page in their browsers than any other customized starting page. Or maybe it is because Yahoo! also offers sufficiently good search results.

This then leads us to another issue: the assumption that users carefully consider or realize that there are differences in what search engines return in response to their queries. There is room for much more research here (some of it one of my students may pursue soon), but based on what we know so far, some people tend to have a tremendous amount of trust in results presented by Google. One could say this is due to Google’s superior quality, but research has found that even when results are manipulated and the less relevant ones are offered up on top, some users will click on them presumably because they believe them to be the most relevant. (I’d really like to see that study replicated on users of other search engines to see how this compares across services. Also, additional tweaks to that study design could help us learn more about these issues.)

We still have a lot to learn about the extent to which users actually consider the quality of search engines when using them. Presumably as long as they find (or think they have found!) what they are looking for they will be satisfied. However, again, research (e.g., here, with more in the works) suggests that some users are very bad about assessing the quality of the material that shows up on pages linked from search engine results, which then puts into question their ability to evaluate search engine results quality.

I am not suggesting that Google is not a good search engine nor am I even suggesting that it is not necessarily the best search engine (although how one defines quality in this domain is tricky). I would love to see some really careful studies on this actually. What I am suggesting is that equating market share in searches should not be confused with quality of search results. I know that there are some very talented folks at Google working on search quality some of whom I know and with whom I have had very interesting and helpful conversations. I’m grateful for the work that they do. Nontheless, that’s a different issues. My point here is that I would not dismiss lock-in factors and others in explaining the service’s popularity based on what my research has taught me about how people use search engines.

I have to add one more note here as it is related and it is something I have been trying to insert into discussions of this sort for years. It may be helpful to remember that most search engine market share data look at proportion of searches not proportion of searchers. Since power users are more likely to be Google users (various data sets I work with supply evidence for this), I suspect that if we were to look at market share based on user figures Google’s share would be smaller than it seems based on figures about proportion of searches. I’ve been commenting on this for years, but the statistics that continue to be discussed concern searches not searchers. Of course, both figures may be relevant, but which one is more relevant depends on the particular questions asked. When discussing quality, it seems that proportion of users would be just as important to consider (if not more) than proportion of searches since presumably all users would want to use the highest quality search engine. Point being, if Google is so superior and that explains its popularity then why doesn’t it have a much larger market share especially regarding proportion of users?

UPDATE: Before trying to explain Google’s popularity today with why people turned to it in the earlier part of this decade, I think it’s worth noting that the Web of 2008 is very different from the Web of 2001/02 when people started migrating over to Google in masses. Explaining that trend doesn’t necessarily say much about why people may stick with it today and what, if anything, would inspired them to try a new service now.

UPDATE 2: Perhaps worth noting here is that I think of “lock-in” not in the completely restrictive sense of the term. Of course, I know that there is no technical lock-out from other options, my point was that given how people use the Internet for information seeking, something similar is going on nonetheless

Grab the nearest book

Monday, February 11th, 2008

As far as I know, no one has tagged me with this blog meme, but I’m still going to participate as it looks fun.

1. Grab the nearest book (that is at least 123 pages long).
2. Open to p. 123.
3. Go down to the 5th sentence.
4. Type in the following 3 sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Nearest book as I sit at my coffee table at home: The Chocolate Connoisseur by Chloé Doutre-Roussel. Page 123 is in the middle of Chapter 6 on The Cream of the Crop under the Reading the Ingredients List subheading. Here we go:

There are several grades of chocolate, and these figures show the European Union and US regulations for standard (S) as well as fine (F) chocolate.

* Dark chocolate (S) must contain at least 35% dry cocoa solids (but 15% for “sweet chocolate” in the US), while dark chocolate (F) must contain at least 43%.
* Milk chocolate (S) must contain at least 25% dry cocoa solids (but 20% in the UK, and 10% in the US), while fine milk chocolate must contain at least 30%.

The fun continues in the 4th sentence so allow me to add that: “Bars such as Cadbury Dairy Milk, Galaxy or Hershey must be labelled ‘family milk chocolate’ in the EU, as they don’t contain enough chocolate to count as chocolate under these rules!”

So yes, it’s worth noting that chocolate is not immune to policy considerations. It may sound silly, but it’s obviously a huge industry and what gets to be labelled chocolate does have regulations attached to it, ones that vary from one country to the next. There are also lobbying efforst involved. I don’t follow this area closely, but when a related news story pops up, I do find it intriguing to check out.

Since I wasn’t tagged for this meme, I guess I don’t have to tag anyone else either although I invite people to grab the nearest book and post the specified three sentences here or on their own blogs.

A day in the life…

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

Whoa, I guess I won’t be reading any blogs (or emails for that matter) today.

Here is my schedule:

8:30am – Breakfast with job candidate
10am-noon – 4 one-on-one meetings with students one after the other
noon-1pm – Attending job candidate’s talk
1:30-7pm – 11 one-on-one meetings with students (straight through, obviously)
7pm-? – Dinner with colleagues and job candidate

So yeah, this many meetings is not usual, but I thought the students from my undergraduate writing seminar would benefit from some one-on-one discussions of their research statements.

Just another 12+ hour day. Wish me luck.

Going viral

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

This video was posted on YouTube just yesterday and has already been watched over 150,000 times.* There’s also a site for a ringtone.

It’s impossible to know at this point how such viral campaigns might influence outcomes, but it’s certainly interesting to watch how people are taking advantage of new tools to disseminate material of this sort. It would be a stretch to suggest anyone can do this easily since this video is filled with celebrities, which likely helped it get coverage on ABC yesterday [source]. Nonetheless, having it available online certainly helps in spreading it widely. I’d be curious to know how most people linking to it found it, but many don’t seem to be pointing to sources, which makes this difficult to decipher.

[*] Note that YouTube’s numbers are confusing as depending on when I click on the link I either get around 153,000 or 84,000 views.

[thanks to]

Photo update

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

I feel like this photo I took last night says a lot about what I’m up to these days, on various levels, so here you go:

Footprints in the snow

Photos from Budapest trip

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

I didn’t get a chance to blog about my trip to Budapest a month ago. I had a really great time and took lots of photos so if curious then click through to my Flickr set on it for some beautiful architecture and some great food. The links below are just a small sampling and not necessarily of the best shots since it would’ve been too much work to customize the mosaic in that way.

Budapest mosaic

1. Santas on motorcycles, 2. Santas on motorcycles, 3. Get Off Signal sign, 4. Opera, 5. Street lights, 6. Mini telephone booth, 7. Basilica, 8. Old building, 9. O utca, 10. Train station by Eiffel, 11. Train station by Eiffel, 12. Heroes’ square, 13. Art Museum, 14. Heroes’ square, 15. Museum, 16. Men’s restroom sign, 17. Women’s restroom sign, 18. Fried mushrooms, 19. Hortobagyi palacsinta, 20. Chicken (with roasted garlic), 21. Gundel palacsinta, 22. Museum, 23. Women’s restroom sign, 24. Men’s restroom sign

Created with fd’s Flickr Toys.

My costume for next year

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

I didn’t mention Halloween here this year as I was just wrapping up a two-week four-stop trip, but I’ve come across something that I’ll link to regardless of the date: an awesome costume that I may just have to replicate next year. For additional Halloween geeky goodness, check out this Death Star pumpkin.

Video of talk at the Berkman Center

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

As I mentioned earlier, I gave a talk at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society the other day. The folks at Berkman have kindly posted a video of the talk and discussion. Some interesting issues came up in the Q&A leading to an engaging conversation so I recommend that part in particular. (The talk itself was relatively short, less than 25 minutes, followed by over half an hour of discussion.)

A good recipe for cookies?

Monday, October 29th, 2007

A few weeks ago the Berkman Center for Internet and Society posted an interesting contest: create a short informative video about Web cookies and have the chance to win up to $5,000 and a trip to DC where the video would then be shown at the FTC’s Town Hall workshop on “Ehavioral Advertising“.

I’m afraid we’re past the deadline for submissions and I apologize for posting about this so late (life intervened and I got behind on a bunch of things). I wanted to post about it nonetheless, because I think it’s an interesting initiative and the resulting videos are available for viewing.

I was very intrigued by this contest given my interest in improving people’s Internet user skills. What would be a good way to communicate the concept of a Web cookie to folks who have little technical background? I haven’t looked at all of the submissions, but the ones I’ve seen I find are still too technical and are likely only comprehensible to those who already know at least a few things about Internet cookies. Alternatively, the clips are too vague and so likely have limited utility for that reason. I was a bit surprised and disappointed that people didn’t do more with the cookie analogy. Some of the videos have related cute/amusing components, but not incorporated in a particularly effective way. However, note that I have not watched all of the submitted videos so I may have missed some gems. Feel free to post links to ones you think are especially informative. I think the timeline for submissions was a bit short (I know there were particular logistical reasons for this), which may have prevented more people from getting involved and may have limited the amount of effort that could go into creation of the entries.

An interesting aside about how YouTube posts videos (assuming I understand this correctly, but I haven’t explored this aspect in depth so feel free to correct me): it seems that the creator of the video has little say over what becomes the thumbnail image for the clip. As far as I can tell, the frame is taken from the middle of the video, which is not always ideal as it’s not necessarily the most informative segment.

How quickly fire spreads

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

Before I get evacuated (not a completely crazy idea with the sheriff right outside my office), I thought I’d post just how quickly fire can spread depending on the circumstances.

How quickly fire spreads

I realize those are not on the same scale, but the surrounding trees should help identify the areas. Understand that I was just trying to do some work this afternoon and then headed out periodically to take some pictures. I didn’t set up shop for a sequence.

The distance between the fire and the nearest road is quite big so eventually the firetrucks just had to head up on the hill. By the time I finished taking photos that entire patch was dark although it looked like the flames had subsided. Of course, that’s just the part I can see, chances are there is lots of action invisible to me from here.

Now I’m going to try to get back to work, helicopters notwithstanding.

Apple’s iRack

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

Random thoughts

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

It’s been a looong time, I know. So here is a short list of very random thoughts.

1. Is it weird if someone on Flickr classifies you as family even though you’re not (and this person is also not a close friend)? I’m thinking, perhaps the person clicked on the wrong button.

2. Has anyone else lost their Quick Contacts section in GMail? I don’t have that option anymore, using Firefox of IE. * sniff *

3. Anyone use Virb? Is it the next big thing?

Photo updates

Friday, April 6th, 2007

I’ve been doing lots of fun things recently much of which I’ve documented, of course.:)

So here are some links to photo sets on Flickr. I also link to the slideshow version. I think those work best if you tweak the timing to no more than 2 seconds per image, just slide the bar in the upper right corner of the tool.

From Firstborns to Chewbacca in between matzo ball soup and matzo munchies

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

Who says there are no benefits to blogging? If it wasn’t for my participation over at Crooked Timber then I would never have met Matt Gordon and would never have been invited to his wonderful Seder last night. Thanks, Matt!

We talked about lots of things, among them how most Haggadahs lack enough information for a newcomer to really get the Passover story while making the central role of He Who Has No Name unmistakable (even while the rest of the story might remain a bit blurry and I don’t just mean because of the amount of wine consumed).

But we also talked about other things, for example: how one comes to name machines in one’s lab. Perhaps not surprising given my previous post, the machines in my lab have Star Wars references. This idea dates back to the machines in the offices of one of my college mentors: Joe had a big black Next machine that was called Darth and the little white Mac I used was called Yoda. So when I started populating my lab with machines I named the white one Yoda and the two black ones Darth and Vader.

Thanks to recent expansions, I’ve been buying additional hardware so I’ve had to come up with new names. I finalized these yesterday: the iMac is R2-D2, the new Dell desktop is Chewbacca and the two ThinkPads are Han Solo and Falcon. (Jacob will be happy to note that these are all real Star Wars characters.)

I’m curious: what names do other people give machines in their labs? This is not about being silly, by the way. It becomes incredibly tedious to talk about “the computer that’s next to the back wall near the printer” so having names serves an important function.

Regarding the Passover meal, the food was wonderful all around. Thanks to Matt’s friend Love for bringing some great matzo munchies, a treat I’d never tried before. Matt’s (and CC’s) cooking was awesome, too, as was the flourless chocolate cake by another guest Lisa.

Vote or vote not, there is no try

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

R2-D2 mailbox Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of Star Wars, the USPS is coming out with Star Wars stamps in May. Woohoo! Limited edition express mail envelopes will also be available and this fact has me contemplating what I should send to myself in express mail. Yes, it’s a great marketing ploy, I am sold.

The site is collecting votes for the stamp that will “reign above all others”.

And now, for only the second time in its 256-year-history, the U.S. Postal Service invites you to vote for your favorite stamp. The winning stamp will become its own stamp sheet.

Cast your vote today. C-3PO seems to be ahead, which is not a horrible choice, but personally I’d rather see either Yoda or Darth Vader win.

More on my dedication to Star Wars in another post.

Thanks to Scott Feldstein for the above photo. Apparently there’s such a mailbox in Palo Alto as well, I’ll have to look for it.

Poll: use of cell phones in restrooms

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

Two months after 11 of you told me that you are absolutely in favor of having polling around here, I get around to posting another one. Apologies for the delay.

I am on the road and have spent some time in airport restrooms over the past few days. On occasion, you hear someone talking on a cell phone. (Fine, it’s an assumption I’m making since I can’t actually see them, but I am fairly confident I am assessing the situation correctly.)

So I thought I would do a poll on this. How do you feel about people using their cell phones in the stalls of public bathrooms? Just to clarify: the question is not about using the cell phone in the sink area, but when they are in a stall.

What do you think? Cast your vote today.

Disclaimer: significantly less time went into the construction of this survey item than the amount of time and effort I spend on my professional work so you should not assume anything about my academic survey work based on this entry.:)

Cool visualizations

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

What do you get when you sort approximately 800,000 published papers into 776 scientific paradigms? If you have an interesting visualization expert working with you on the project then you get this map (or click here for an even larger version). Seed Magazine has more on the details and Brad Paley’s Information Esthetics Web site tells you how you can get your own copy just for paying shipping and handling charges.

This map is just one project of Katy Börner’s cool Places and Space: Mapping Science initiative at Indiana University. Check out that site for more goodies.

Brad also has some other intriguing projects, like this calendar (an alternative to what we usually use). One of my favorites, however, remains his TextArc work for alternative ways of visualizing text. For example, check out his representation of Alice in Wonderland.

UPDATE: I’ve been meaning to blog about Jim Moody’s related work as well so I should’ve remembered to include a link to his visualizations, too: co-citation of physical and bio sciences, dynamic visualization of sociology co-authorship network.

Quick update

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

For any regular reader, it’s probably been hard to miss that I haven’t had much time for blogging.. or even browsing the Web given how few links have appeared here via

I was on the road, first at a MacArthur grantees’ meeting, then in Fort Lee, NJ for a couple of days, next in Chicago for some meetings and data collection, and finally at Northwestern for our graduate recruitment weekend. I’m delighted to be back in what was sunny California when I arrived yesterday, but what is now a cloudy rainy day (less delighted about the latter).

I’m still in catch-up mode so don’t expect too much in the near future. Maybe I’ll post some photos to keep things colorful.

In the meantime, check out how the “wisdom of crowds” principle completely failed me in this guessing game Scott put up. I decided to guess the contents of the coin jar by averaging the guesses of everyone else. It didn’t work at all.

I guess it’s just as well, choosing from among those intriguing prizes would’ve been difficult.

Tech Talk at Google tomorrow

Monday, January 29th, 2007

I will be presenting in the TechTalk series at Google tomorrow.

     Google TechTalks are designed to disseminate a wide spectrum of views on topics including Current Affairs, Science, Medicine, Engineering, Business, Humanities, Law, Entertainment, and the Arts.

Interesting list, where do I fit in?

The title of my talk is “Beyond Gigs of Log Data: The Social Aspects of Internet Use”. I will be talking about the importance of social science research in gaining a better understanding of how and why people use digital media. That is, while companies like Google may have unbelievable amounts of information about users based on their online actions, I argue that there are other factors difficult to capture in logs that are also important to understanding how and why people use various online services the way that they do.

From Google’s perspective, I think one puzzle concerns the following. Despite being a media darling and getting a ton of positive press coverage over the years, other than search and ads, the company hasn’t gained significant market share in any realm. Even in search, how is it that they are only used by about half of all searchers with the kind of attention they get? (I actually have answers to this, my point here is that some people don’t seem to take a sufficiently nuanced approach to how the company’s products are doing.) And of course, search and ads are very important areas, but if they thought that was enough, they wouldn’t be expanding to other realms. They are, however, but not very successfully.

Google Maps* and GMail** may be great products – I’ll be the first to admit it -, but again, the company’s market share is small compared to some of their big competitors. Sure, they are relatively recent entrants, but is there any evidence of significant diffusion to new users? Of course, if we really want to hit the bottom of the barrel, we can look at Google Checkout or the now defunct Google Answers.

My point is that simply having automated data about your own users’ actions isn’t going to tell you that much about why others are not your users, and why users of some of your services aren’t embracing others of your products. Hopefully Google understands this and works with people in this realm. I know for sure that they do some interesting work in user experience. But a bit more attention in this area than is apparent may be valuable.

* Based on some data I collected last year about a diverse group of college students’ Internet uses (N=1,336): Mapquest: 85% use it sometimes or often; Google Maps: 39% use it sometimes or often (an additional 33% have tried it, but don’t use it); Yahoo! Maps: 34% use it sometimes or often. This population is much more wired (more time online to explore things) than the general user population so figures here are likely to be higher than what one would find with a more representative sample.

** Based on some data I collected last year about a diverse group of college students’ Internet uses (N=1,336): Yahoo! Mail: 54%; Hotmail: 31%; AOL Mail: 19%; GMail: 12%. This population is much more wired (more time online to explore things) than the general user population so figures here are likely to be higher than what one would find with a more representative sample.